Considering Skinny Puppy's history of gory stage exorcisms, endless internecine conflict, rampant drug abuse and, finally, death and disbandment, the last thing anyone expected from the band was a reunion. And yet on June 11, the industrial-electronic demi-legends will show America their blood-encrusted face for the first time in a dozen years.
Many said it was impossible: One dead member and two eternally fighting survivors are hardly the best source of successful rebirths. So how did we get here? And can a reborn Skinny Puppy really survive in an American Idol world? To predict the future, it helps to understand the past. So, let's...
REWIND [<<] 1982
Skinny Puppy formed when two Vancouver, B.C., youths--inspired by a shared love of subterranean electronic artists like Throbbing Gristle, SPK and Portion Control--began experimenting with tape loops and unstable early synthesizers. A formula gradually congealed: seething stews of heavily manipulated vocals and horror film samples, spread across thick layers of warping industrial rhythms and sinister synths. The two men, Kevin Crompton and Kevin Ogilvie, adopted the pseudonyms cEvin Key and Nivek Ogre, respectively, and Skinny Puppy was born. Keyboardist Dwayne Goettel joined soon afterward.
But even if the creature's birth was easy enough, its life was difficult. Ogre's rabidly babbled, stream-of-consciousness lyrics revealed doomy political and personal obsessions: the tortures of animal testing, biological warfare, imminent environmental apocalypse and pure old-fashioned madness. Onstage, clotted with gore and stage blood, he led the trio through violent electroshock spectacles full of assassinations, fake vivisections, exploding babies, melting flesh costumes, grisly films and nightmarish sets. Offstage, his own psychological traumas were greatly intensified by spiraling drug use.
Key and Goettel's music reflected Ogre's disintegration. While early albums cycled around danceable beats, later works like 1990's Too Dark Park were veritable illustrations of breakdown: Songs flexed and fractured around Ogre's torrential screams, rhythms sputtering like acid rain in a stuttering squall. By 1991's Last Rights, the songs had become headcrushing rushes of noise, often formless and opaque, with Key and Goettel throwing manic samples and caustic liquid synths over Ogre's often unintelligible shrieks.
Last Rights' follow-up, 1996's seemingly cursed The Process, saw the conflict-ridden band suffer full dissolution. After the trio's record label rejected the initial album mixes, Goettel--oddly, the band's tamest, most gentle member--overdosed on heroin and Skinny Puppy's last remaining bonds dissolved. Now let's...
FAST FORWARD [>>] 2004
When a European promoter offered Key and Ogre a "ridiculous" fee to perform at Dresden, Germany's 2000 Doomsday Festival, suddenly the combative duo was willing to suture their wounds--cash, after all, can be quite a healing balm. Vague post-concert rumors of possible new Puppy material soon gave way to action. The result: this year's comeback album, The Greater Wrong of the Right.
The disc is something of a throwback to the earlier dancefloor sound--and thus a disappointment to those hoping for a continuation of the band's amorphous experimentalism. Instead of being sent into crazed seizures, we are taken on remarkably clearheaded blip-disco trips. Instead of being buried under a collapsing series of explosions, blastgun beats and blazing electronics, we hear mellifluous synth-pop. Instead of choking claustrophobia, we find open space and thin mixes. The rhythms--heavy on kick-drum simplicity and squibby techno snares--are surprisingly tame, considering that Key is a drummer by training. The album even breaks the sacred Puppy tradition of ending every disc with an instrumental of smoldering ambient crackles and moans.
In all honesty, the output of Puppy 2K4 sounds much closer to Ogre's robo-pop solo project, Ohgr, than the bile-coated psychosis of SP. (The album is even co-produced by Mark Walk, who did the two Ohgr albums, while former Puppy producer Dave Ogilvie is MIA.) Those seeking the melting lava burns and tilting uncertainty of old are better served by Key's post-Puppy solo albums and his work with Download.
But the stage may well be the place where Skinny Puppy either proves its continued validity or admits the futility of its attempted reunion. If SP can re-create the hellfire and haunted damnation of previous Grand Guignol displays, it would go a long way toward redeeming the breeziness of The Greater Wrong of the Right. This, after all, was a band which formed out of a hatred for easy pop music. It would be a shame to see Skinny Puppy resurrected merely to fade into the shadow of its own legacy.
Skinny Puppy plays Friday, June 11, at the Roseland Theater, 8 NW 6th Ave., 224-2038. 8 pm. $23+ advance (TicketsWest). All ages.